Mint is a beautiful and refreshing herb that can be used in countless dishes, beverages, and even home remedies. It’s no wonder that many gardening enthusiasts and home cooks grow this vibrant plant in their own backyard gardens. In this article, you’ll find pro tips and techniques for how to grow and care for mint.
Mint plants belong to the genus Mentha and are part of the Lamiaceae family. Two of the most common mint species found in home gardens are peppermint (Mentha × piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata), but there are over 7,000 known varieties worldwide.
In the U.S., most garden centers and home improvement stores carry a variety of easy-to-grow culinary mints, including lemon, chocolate, ginger, pineapple, orange, and more.
The most important thing to know about mint — so I’m mentioning it right off the bat here at the top of this article — is that mint is a wildly prolific spreader. Mint propagates quickly and successfully underground via sturdy rhizomes and can take over surprisingly large areas.
And because it’s a perennial herb, it doesn’t lose any ground, so to speak, when winter hits: It simply picks up right where it left off when the ground warms again in the spring. It easily overwhelms a garden.
Once this spread occurs, it’s very difficult to get rid of. Honestly, a field of spearmint sounds absolutely dreamy, but for the reality of a backyard, it’s another story entirely.
Fun fact: plants in the mint family have an interesting physical characteristic. The stems have four distinct sides (or, square, if you look at a cross-section of a stem cutting). Basil is related to mint and also has four sides.
If you already have mint and need to transplant it to a larger pot, or move it from a ground planting to a container, be sure to check out my guide for how to transplant mint.
Aside from its sprawling growth habit, mint is a wonderful and must-grow herb. On a hot summer’s morning, it’s my habit to pick a few tender leaves and add them (washed, of course) to a tall glass of ice water with a thin slice of lime. So refreshing!
Where to Buy Mint
Mint is one of the few plants in the home garden that’s better to purchase as a starter plant from a grower, garden center, online, or other retail source.
It’s not that it’s particularly hard to grow mint from seed, but they do have specific requirements, such as being sown under a bright light source, so germination rates can be iffy.
But the reason that mint plants are easier to find than mint seeds — take a look at your favorite online source; some don’t even sell seed packets! — is because it’s simply easier for commercial growers to grow and maintain large quantities of mint plants and then separate them into starter plants in the spring (source) than it is to harvest and save the seeds from the current crop and then sow and tend the following year.
I’ve purchased mint plants from numerous places, including Home Depot, Burpee, specialty growers, and locally-owned garden centers. Even Kroger. Mint is a hardy plant, so your options should be wide open.
Container vs. In-ground
It’s important to emphasize again here that, for the average backyard gardener, it’s far better to plant mint in a container than bare-rooted in the ground.
Lessons I’ve learned, lol: My own mistake with the mint family came from a lemon balm plant. Lemon balm is a verdant, beautifully fragrant herb that I bought and planted in the ground on a whim.
Like mint, it spreads via underground rhizomes and its own seeds, which scatter and drop to the ground from tall flowerheads. I had pseudo control of this plant for a couple of years by aggressively preventing flowering, but then one year I was quite sick and was not out in the yard for most of the summer.
The plant had flowered and dropped its seeds all over the place. The next season was a shocker: Lemon balm, everywhere, smothering other perennial herbs. It had to go. I ripped out the entire bed, 6 inches deep.
That was 2017. It’s now spring of 2023 as of this writing, and guess what sprung up in the old lemon balm location?
Expect the same behavior from mint. If you must plant it in the ground, be sure to enclose the root ball in material that cannot be perforated by mint’s roots and rhizomes, such as a sturdy but breathable fabric planting bag.
A pot set in the ground is another option, but if it has a drainage hole, it could allow roots to sneak out through the hole. Be sure to lift the pot at the end of each season and remove any roots in the soil.
How to Plant Mint
Mint likes room to spread, so use a container that is larger than the root ball with at least a 1″ margin around the circumference.
Unlike houseplants, herbs and vegetables are quite happy in oversized containers because their growth season is short and their growth goals are aggressive. In other words, they need room to stretch their roots.
Remember that your 4″ starter plant will end up quite tall and bushy by July, so buy a container for your July mint, not your cute little March starter plant.
Spearmint (left) and peppermint in March:
Same mints in June:
Choose a container with a drainage hole, but partially cover the hole with something to prevent the soil from crumbling out during the growing season. I use a pebble or a small piece of window screen.
Mint plants are not terribly fussy about their soil. I use standard potting soil with a bit of peat moss and perlite mixed in.
Add a 1″ layer of soil to the bottom of the pot. Carefully lift your starter plant from its nursery pot and position it in the center of its new home.
Fill the sides with fresh soil, firming as you go, until you reach the level of the starter plant’s soil. Water lightly and place in a sunny location.
Water and Sunlight Requirements
Mint plants prefer consistently moist soil, so be sure to water them regularly — daily or every other day when in containers, during the heat of summer.
However, avoid over-watering and water-logging to prevent root rot. If your mint pot is sitting in a saucer, be certain to dump the water from it after a rainy stretch.
Ideally, mint plants should receive at least 4-6 hours of direct sunlight daily. They can tolerate partial shade, but too much shade can lead to leggy growth and reduced flavor.
Fertilizing Mint Plants
Mint is not a heavy feeder, so avoid over-fertilizing, which can lead to excessive growth and reduced flavor.
As long as your mint plant has fresh soil at the beginning of the growing season, you actually shouldn’t need to feed the plant. But if your area is having an extra rainy summer, this could lead to the leaching out of nutrients from the pot’s soil.
In that case, you can apply a weak solution of a balanced fertilizer in the spring, and then again every three to six weeks thereafter.
Pruning and Maintenance
Regular pruning is the key to maintaining healthy and productive mint plants. Prune your mint plants in the spring and again mid-summer, cutting them back by half, to encourage bushier growth and prevent the plants from becoming too tall and leggy.
Be sure to remove any dead or yellowing leaves and stems to maintain the overall health of the plant.
To harvest mint, you can pick a few leaves as you need them, or cut whole stems. Harvesting a few leaves is suitable for small amounts and everyday use, such as adding to your tea or chopping up into a salad, while cutting whole stems is ideal when you need a larger amount (such as a mojito party!).
When harvesting mint, follow these guidelines:
Harvest mint leaves or stems in the morning after the dew has dried but before the heat of the day sets in. This helps to maintain the best flavor and aroma.
If you’re picking individual leaves, gently pinch them off the stem with the tips of your fingers or use a pair of scissors or small pruning shears to snip them off.
To cut whole stems, use clean, sharp scissors or pruning shears to snip the stems about an inch above a leaf joint or node. This promotes the growth of new branches and encourages a bushier plant.
Don’t harvest more than one-third of the plant at once to ensure it has enough leaves on the plant to intake nourishment from the sun for energy to regenerate and continue growing.
Regularly harvesting mint leaves and stems can promote growth and prevent the plant from becoming too tall and leggy. It can also delay flowering and producing seeds, which will keep the plant young and vibrant.
Remember to wash the mint leaves thoroughly before using them in recipes or as garnishes!
By storing mint carefully over the winter, you can ensure a healthy plant and vigorous growth the following year. In regions with cold winters, mint will completely die back, showing no green growth. This is okay. Go ahead and trim away the long branches. Tuck a layer of leaf mulch over the surface of the pot.
Then, if possible, move mint indoors and out of the harsh elements. Even an unheated garage will do. I put my potted mint in the garage in a storage tub and tuck old sheets around them. (It’s not meant to keep them warm, just protected from drafty conditions.)
Mint is very hardy and will survive cold winters very well. I’ve even left my mint pots out on an exposed deck all winter, and they survived. But, it’s better to give them a little protection!
Keep an eye out for new growth in the spring, as this is a sign that your mint plants have successfully overwintered and are ready to thrive again.
Note that when the next growing season begins, mint’s roots and rhizomes will begin spreading aggressively, so it might be time to repot the plant. I have a detailed guide for how to transplant mint that should help identify whether your mint needs to be moved to a bigger pot.
Frequently Asked Questions about Caring for Mint
Can I grow different mint varieties together?
It depends. Some gardeners treat their mint plants as annuals — although they are hardy perennials — and in that case, it’s perfectly fine to plant mints together.
But, if you’re looking at the long term, different mint varieties planted close together can cross-pollinate and impact their flavors the following year.
For best results, plant each mint variety in its own container and position the different varieties at least three feet apart, if not in separate areas altogether.
How long does it take for mint to grow and be ready for harvest?
Mint leaves are edible as soon as they appear on the plant, but to ensure that the young plant gets enough energy and nutrient intake via its leaves, wait until the plant is well-leafed with full stems.
This stage actually happens pretty quickly, and leaves should be ready to harvest in late May or June.
What do mint flowers look like? Do they attract bees?
Bees love mint flowers! Flowers are usually white or purple and extend out from a stem in a slender cone shape.
The flowers produce seeds and is one way (although not the most productive way) that mint propages. Pruning off the flowers will keep the mint plant focusing on leaf production.
How do I propagate mint plants?
Mint is most easily propagated by digging it up to expose the entire plant, and then carefully separating the plant all the way down through the root ball. You might need shears or scissors to gently cut through the thick rhizomes.
Then repot each of the separated plants into fresh soil and water lightly.
This is best done in the spring or very late in the fall.
You can root stem cuttings indoors in a glass of water on a sunny window sill, changing the water frequently. When the cutting has a nice tangle of roots, pot in a small container with soil.
What are some common pests that affect mint plants?
If you notice holes or spots on your mint leaves, your plant is likely experiencing an infestation of some sort.
The most common mint pests are aphids and spider mites. Aphids look like tiny gnats and cluster on the undersides of leaves. Spider mites are minuscule, often red or yellow, and can also be found on the undersides of leaves. There may also be webbing present, strung between leaves and stems.
Often a good blast of water is enough to wash them off. For a stubborn infestation, neem oil or insecticidal soap good organic options.
You might also encounter the occasional cabbage looper worm — a small green worm that loves brassica vegetables — which can simply be picked right off.
Growing and caring for mint in your home garden is a rewarding, low-effort experience, providing you with a fresh and fragrant supply throughout the growing season.
Mint is a must-have herb in my container garden, and I hope you’ll give it a try this year in yours!